In an effort to win new friends, reward old ones and prepare others to fight a war on terrorism, the United States has loosened export restrictions on arms sales, while boosting military aid to many countries and increasing financing for their purchase of U.S. weapons. Some fear the policy shift could fuel conflict in South and Central Asia — areas known for their instability.
One sign of things to come was the announcement on Friday by Raytheon Corp. that Washington and New Delhi were finalizing the first U.S. foreign military sale to India in more than a decade — eight Thales Raytheon Firefinder Weapon Locater Radar systems worth about $140 million.
The Pentagon called it “a historic move that further signals improving relations between India and the United States.”
Before the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, U.S. fears about growing tensions between India and Pakistan — punctuated by nuclear weapons testing on both sides in 1998 — led Washington to impose sanctions prohibiting U.S. arms sales and military ties with the two countries.
But following the attacks, most sanctions were waived for both countries after they demonstrated support for the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan. Now the radar system is one of about 20 Indian military purchases in the works, and U.S. officials are on record promising to push them through licensing procedures.
The sales are part of a stark shift in U.S. military and foreign policy in South and Central Asia, a region to which the United States once was reluctant to provide military support. The Bush administration justifies the shift by arguing that it is crucial to the U.S. war on terrorism, the president’s highest priority.
But critics argue that the White House is losing sight of other priorities, including earlier U.S. efforts to defuse regional conflicts and discourage governments known for human rights abuses.
Fears of destabilization
The Firefinder radar systems — designed to instantaneously spot incoming rounds fired by artillery and allow speedy retaliation — could give India an edge over Pakistan, or at least the perception of an edge, and critics argue that will only increase Pakistan’s sense of insecurity.
“My concern is that Pakistan will turn to nuclear weapons or a pre-emptive strike,” says Tamar Gabelnick, director of the Arms Sales Monitoring Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “Of all the tinderboxes in the world, this is the most dangerous one.”
Pakistan responded swiftly to the Firefinder announcement. “It will encourage India to more belligerence,” Aziz Ahmed Khan, a foreign office spokesman, told a press briefing on Monday.
Amid renewed tensions in recent months, hundreds of thousands of Indian and Pakistani troops are faced off at the line of demarcation in the disputed territory of Kashmir, which has been the site of four Indian-Pakistani battles.
“As it is, they have deployed their troops along the border. We think that anything more that adds to India’s arsenal is only used in prompting it to intimidating postures,” Khan said.
But Pakistan is also in line for weapons purchases from the United States and has been promised a whopping $600 million in security assistance, though its larger weapons requests — particularly for F-16 fighter jets — remain stalled.
During a visit to Washington by President Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan and the United States set up a Joint Defense Cooperation Group to examine Pakistan’s defense needs, including the F-16 deal. Since news of the sale to India, Pakistan has renewed pressure for the group to convene as early as May.
Focus on Uzbekistan
As a result of the war on terrorism, the United States has also become far more entrenched in Central Asia, using air bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and gaining explicit support for its campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaida from all of the governments that border Afghanistan.
Washington had imposed limits on military aid and weapons sales to these countries out of concern for their weak democratic institutions and poor human rights records. But now, out of gratitude and necessity, Washington has lifted those restrictions.
It is unclear how additional arms will affect local rivalries, but there are many disputes in the region — divided by Stalin to intentionally pit the Muslim-dominated states against one another — over borders, and resources such as water and oil.
Of greatest concern is Uzbekistan, already the strongest state in Central Asia, both economically and militarily.
Uzbekistan has been singled out as one of the biggest recipients of U.S. assistance in its fight against terrorism, after restrictions based on human rights concerns were lifted.
A rising extremist group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, was chosen for special mention in President Bush’s State of the Union address as one of the most notable terrorist groups in the world.
President Islom Karimov has warmly welcomed the U.S. presence, and has not placed any time limitation on the use of the country’s bases. In Kyrgyzstan, by contrast, where public debate is allowed, the government offered a three-year lease on its facilities.
Karimov’s government is due to receive about $100 million in various kinds of U.S. assistance, the vast majority of it for military aid and training, and border security. He is the only leader of the Central Asian states to pay an official visit to Washington since Sept. 11.
While Uzbekistan is arguably critical in the war on terrorism, there are hazards to supporting it. “My fear is that the United States will prop up Uzbekistan as a regional hegemon,” says Pauline Jones Luong, assistant professor and Central Asia specialist at Yale University.
“Domestically it could increase the hostility towards the Uzbek government because the government could use its strength as a stamp of approval to crackdown even harder, causing resentment not just at home but from other groups in the region and in the long run, encourage more terrorism.”
Karimov has the worst human rights records in the region. His efforts to crush the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have extended to silencing voices of Islamists in general, alienating even moderate critics.
Uzbekistan’s military has also pursued the Islamic militants into Kyrgyzstan’s territory, raising sovereignty issues. Moreover, the Karimov government has leaned on Kyrgyzstan to roll back some of its more liberal policies, arguing that freedoms in the neighboring state are causing problems for Uzbekistan.
The complex new Great Game
At least in part, recent U.S. moves to extend military aid throughout the region are part of a new Great Game, vying with Russia, China and others for influence in the wake of the Soviet collapse. The war on terrorism has given Washington a new reason to pursue a foothold.
As a result of recent U.S. policy changes, Russia is worried that it will lose India — long one of its best weapons customers — to the United States. A commentator in the Vremya Novostei newspaper even suggested that the United States, by taking over markets the Russian military desperately needs in South and Central Asia, could drive Russia to export more to the countries on the American official list of rogue states — Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Libya, Syria and Sudan.
For the behemoth U.S. defense industry, which exports about half of the world’s weapons, Central Asia and South Asia are for now customers of modest means and heavily dependent on U.S. military aid.
“We see opportunities, but at this point they are difficult to quantify,” says Dave Shea, a spokesman for Raytheon, a $40 billion-a-year defense contractor. “Money is tough over there. Desires are long and money is short.”
U.S. concerns about terrorism have become entangled with other objectives in the region, including securing energy resources.
In testimony to Congress in October, Gen. Joseph Ralston, commander in chief of the U.S. European Command, known by the acronym USEUCOM, argued for lifting restrictions on Azerbaijan for receiving U.S. military due to its aggression against Armenia.
Azerbaijan’s “geo-strategic position; pro-Western economic, political and military orientation; and its abundant energy resources, have already proven to be high priorities for USEUCOM security cooperation efforts,” he said. “A stable Azerbaijan is necessary not only because of its vast energy deposits, but also because it can help forestall terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”